Wilberforce Academy Director and Head of Public Theology Rev. Dr Joe Boot comments on how Christian freedoms have been eroding in the West.
The Lord Jesus Christ declared, “if the Son sets you free, you shall be free indeed” (John 8:36). And the apostle Paul wrote, “It is for freedom, that Christ has set us free” (Gal 5:1)’ so that we would not be burdened by the slave-yokes of men. As Christians, we are charged to live as free men, because we are slaves of God, but we must never use our God-given freedom as a cover-up for evil. Rather, we are to serve the kingdom and purposes of God (2 Pt. 16-17). The scriptures teach us as believers that we are first to fear God, love one another and honour those in authority. This perspective led to the birth of freedom in the West as the Church declared the universal kingship of Jesus Christ and became the first truly free institution, limiting the state. In the anglosphere, we have been the blessed beneficiaries for generations of this legacy.
Today, as the gospel of Christ has been increasingly abandoned in Canada and throughout much of the Western world, it is entirely logical that those historic freedoms would come under serious threat. Only in Christianised cultures deeply influenced by the gospel have people ever lived in freedom, and freedom has in that sense been the historical anomaly as we look down the centuries of recorded history.
Back in the time of the primitive Church, the Jews enjoyed a brief immunity from religious persecution because years earlier Julius Caesar, seeing their commercial skill and wealth as beneficial to the empire, had declared Judaism a ‘religio licita’ (legitimate religion), exempting them from pagan rites and the veneration of the emperors as gods. But as the early Church became distinguished from Judaism, it did not enjoy these temporary imperially granted privileges and was severely persecuted.
Although the early Christians lived in a time of state absolutism and tyrannous rule – culture being as yet unshaped by the gospel – the apostle Paul did not hesitate to use every privilege afforded by his birth to resist persecution. Never does the Bible commend a martyrdom complex or the romanticising of persecution. In Acts 22, as Paul is faced with mob opposition and is about to be ‘examined’ under the lash to find out why he has stirred such trouble, he challenges the presiding centurion regarding the legality of flogging an untried Roman citizen. Paul goes on to assert his credentials as a citizen by birth, and successfully averts the flogging and maltreatment. This is an important lesson for modern Western Christians as we respond as citizens in democratic constitutional monarchies and republics to growing attacks on our liberty where the teachings of the gospel are increasingly viewed as ‘contrary to law.’[i]
In a relevant episode in Acts 18, the Lord himself appears to Paul in a vision and tells him not to be afraid but to keep on speaking as persecution from the Jews starts to mount. When he is hauled by the Jews before the judge’s bench of Gallio, the gentile proconsul of Achaia, the charge made against him is noteworthy: “he persuades people to worship God contrary to the law” (Acts 18:13). In Acts 17, the charge is that the disciples are declaring the reign of another king – Jesus. These sorts of charges (as I will show) are clearly implied in the challenges beginning to emerge concerning Christians in Canada – that our beliefs and teachings are contrary to law and that we preach another source of sovereignty (kingship) deemed unacceptable.
The Canadian legal apparatus
For over two decades in Canada, an alert minority has observed and sought to oppose (thus far fruitlessly) the gradual construction of a human rights and legal apparatus with the potential to severely restrict the freedoms and liberties of Christians. Especially since July 2005 and the scandalous legal fiction redefining marriage in the Canadian state, a steady stream of criminal and administrative law has found its way onto the statute books that can and has been gradually wielded against Christians and their faith by the police, professional bodies, Human Rights Tribunals and the Courts.
In 2017, the Liberal government amended sections of Canada’s Criminal Code that deal with ‘hatred’ toward an ‘identifiable group’. Hatred itself is not defined in the Code, but writing, statements or signs deemed to incite or promote hatred could be regarded as criminal (A 2013 Supreme Court of Canada decision states that “hate speech” is expression that is “likely to expose a person or persons to detestation and vilification on the basis of a prohibited ground of discrimination”). In the 2017 revision to the Criminal Code sections listing identifiable groups (which already included sexual orientation), the highly controversial ideological concepts generated by radical critical theory – gender identity and expression – were added to the identifiable groups listed in section 318(4) (this list also applies for section 319 – see 319(7)) and in section 718.2(a) (aggravating factors for sentencing) of the Criminal Code. The promoting and inciting of ‘hatred’ towards these newly created groups now includes making statements in a public place or making statements in any other setting than that of a private conversation. Although religious arguments are ostensibly considered a possible defence if they are made in ‘good faith,’ the subjectivity of both ‘hatred’ and ‘good faith’ give courts incredible latitude in finding someone guilty. In the event of a conviction, the offense carries up to two years in prison.
Whilst the Supreme Court of Canada has acknowledged that these provisions restrict freedom of expression, they have argued that the restrictions are justifiable under Section (1) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms—a document that has been used to batter and marginalise Christianity in Canada for over thirty years. As such, the Court has rejected constitutional challenges to both the hate propaganda offences in the Criminal Code, and challenges to the hate publication provisions in human rights legislation.
In addition, the various Human Rights Commissions and Tribunals, enforcing the regularly amended Human Rights Codes, have consistently targeted Christian and conservative individuals and institutions for alleged discrimination. The decisions of the courts have steadily generated a ‘hierarchy’ of rights – a fact they vigorously deny – in which liberties for Christians are consistently found at the bottom.
As an example, in a landmark case in 2018, Trinity Western University, an evangelical university in British Columbia, lost its battle in Canada’s Supreme Court to move ahead with its law school after some Canadian law societies objected that the university was discriminatory. While the court recognised that its final ruling violated religious freedom, it argued that it was ‘proportionate and reasonable’ to do this in order to ensure access to the University for self-identifying LGBTQ students who might feel unable to sign Trinity Western’s Community Covenant that obliged students studying at this Christian institution to respect the Biblical view of human sexuality and abstain from sexual relations other than heterosexual marriage during their studies at the school.
Federal Bill to ban ‘Conversion Therapy’
It seems that many of these steps, steadily eroding Christian freedom, may now be coming to a head at the federal level with an ideologically motivated effort to actually criminalise services and practices that the government believes are rooted in ‘myths’ about the human person.
Proposed legislation originally called “Bill C-8”, An Act to amend the Criminal Code, had proposed to brandish criminal law against so-called ‘conversion therapy’ and is now expected to reappear this Fall unchanged but under a different number. Bill C-8 states clearly in its preamble: “conversion therapy … is based on and propagates myths and stereotypes about sexual orientation and gender identity, including the myth that a person’s sexual orientation and gender identity can and ought to be changed.”
Clearly here, Biblical truth (cf. 1 Cor. 6: 9-11) and the historic teaching of the church concerning human sexuality are condemned as myth and Christ’s call to repentance from sexual sin is overtly rejected. Justice Minister David Lametti explained his rationale for the ban, saying: “Conversion therapy is premised on a lie, that being homosexual, lesbian, bisexual or trans is wrong and in need of fixing. Not only is that false, it sends a demeaning and a degrading message that undermines the dignity of individuals.” So, on the authority of Mr. Lametti, God’s Word, the authority of Christ, the teaching of the universal Church and centuries of normative understandings of the human person are dismissed as lies to be overthrown, with resisters cast into prison.
With the seriousness of this threat in mind, it would be important to know how ‘conversion therapy’ is actually being defined. The bill’s definition is as follows:
Conversion therapy means a practice, treatment or service designed to change a person’s sexual orientation to heterosexual or gender identity to cisgender, or to repress or reduce non-heterosexual attraction or sexual behaviour.
The language of the bill already presupposes the validity of fictive ideological concepts in queer theory by using terms like ‘cisgender’ for the biological binary norm of male and female. It seems incredible that such a bill could be coming before the House of Commons from the government, but this is the reality facing Christians in Canada.
The Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, in a paper entitled ‘Unconscionable and Unconstitutional (May 12, 2020)’, has warned Canadians that:
“Bill C-8 directly confronts the teaching of cultural and religious beliefs about sexuality and gender with the threat of imprisonment. It also severely restricts the ability of consenting adults to voluntarily receive the supports of their choice in relation to sexuality and gender by making it criminal to advertise or receive material benefit from ‘conversion therapy’ as overbroadly defined … Bill C-8 imposes broad criminal prohibitions that violate Canadian human rights and constitutional freedoms, including Charter rights to liberty and security of the person, freedom of expression, freedom of conscience and religion and equality.”
What the bill in fact does is remove meaningful personal choice by imposing the affirmation and promotion of homosexuality and/or gender transition as the only acceptable form of counsel, guidance or treatment – especially for children experiencing gender identity distress. Under the cover of outlawing barbaric and harmful ‘treatments’ that no-one actually practices, a radical and ideologically pagan view of sexuality and gender is enforced by making the definition of ‘conversion therapy’ so wide (including spiritual, medical and psychological supports) that youth with unwanted feelings or addictions would have no choice but to have ‘treatments’ that either reinforce these unwanted feelings and addictions, or permanently alter their bodies. It does this by banning alternative supports with the threat of imprisonment, violating the Charter rights and freedoms of children, their parents, church communities and health care professionals.
André Schutten, Fellow of the Ezra Institute and Director of Law and Policy and General Legal Counsel for ARPA Canada, has recently warned pastors in Canada that:
“This bill, if passed as written, would make it a criminal offence to help a person struggling with their sexual orientation (e.g. a same-sex attracted Christian) or sexual thoughts or behaviour (e.g. watching gay porn) or gender identity (e.g. believe they are a man trapped inside a female body) to bring their thoughts, words, and deeds into conformity with the Word of God. But the pastor or counsellor would be free to encourage a man to explore same-sex desires or experiment with same-sex behaviour. Similarly, encouraging a teen girl to love and appreciate and care for the female body God designed and paired with her soul would be a criminal act. But the opposite (encouraging or experimenting with change from cisgender to genderqueer, nonbinary, transgender, etc.) is permitted.”
It is especially important therefore, that Christians become aware that this legislation is not directed merely at health care professionals – though that itself would be serious enough. It directly threatens the sanctity and sphere of authority of the family by invading the child-parent relationship and threatening jail time for parents seeking health and spiritual care alternatives to social, hormonal and physical gender transition of their children who may be experiencing some form of gender dysphoria or other psychological condition.
It likewise threatens the sphere of authority and sanctity of the church. Christians must become alert to the fact that right now, basic pastoral care, prayer counselling and the fundamental teachings of the scriptures and the church, if applied, are literally teetering on the edge of being criminalised in the Dominion of Canada. Schutten likewise warns Canadian pastors that the implications of this bill passing would likely go well beyond banning faithful pastoral care and biblical counselling—it would soon thereafter destroy the charitable legal status of non-compliant churches and Christian organisations:
“If this bill passes unamended, aspects of your ministry (to youth in particular) in an age of sexual confusion would be criminalized. Not only do you face fines and prison time should you continue with biblically faithful counselling, it would be a very simple and logical next step to remove your church’s charitable status: why would the CRA give tax receipts to a criminal organization? Through all this, the gospel witness would be marginalized, preventing more from hearing and experiencing the joy and freedom found in Christ Jesus.”
Heeding prophetic warning
In a remarkable article published in The Observer on 20 July 1958 in the UK, (‘Willing Slaves of the Welfare State: Is Progress Possible?’), C. S. Lewis warned Christians in the West that a growing vision of a pagan technocracy, desirous of planning and controlling our lives, would seek to steadily remove our freedoms in order to realise their idea of a utopian society. I don’t think even Lewis envisioned so fundamental an effort to redefine human sexuality and the creational norms of male and female that we are seeing today. Yet, Lewis did understand that, “the new oligarchy must more and more base its claim to plan us on its claim to knowledge.” The ‘experts’ and politicians pursuing this kind of legislation (i.e. former Bill C-8) are claiming a kind of new gnostic insight into reality (that escapes most ordinary people), a ‘knowledge’ that allows them to reduce the truth of the Bible to myth, the biological reality of male and female to ephemeral social constructions, and the teaching of Christ to lies and falsehood.
The arrogant presumption of such political leaders proves Lewis’s powerful observation that:
“The modern State exists not to protect our rights but to do us good or make us good – anyway to do something to us or to make us something … we are less their subjects than their wards, pupils or domestic animals. There is nothing left of which we can say to them, ‘Mind your own business.’ Our whole lives are their business.”
He concluded this prophetic article with a telling warning,
“The more completely we are planned the more powerful they will be. Have we discovered some new reason why, this time, power should not corrupt as it has done before?”
If we don’t want our whole lives in every detail – family, church and even social media activity – to become the statist planners daily business, where as their pupils and wards they ‘make us something’ on pain of criminal penalty, we had better ensure this bill, and others like it, are emphatically defeated. That means speaking truth to those in authority, defending the gospel openly and informing others of grave threats to our liberty in Christ.
[i] For more, read Christian Concern’s booklet